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50 years of 'Cabaret': A haunting moral musical

'Cabaret' - Bob Fosse

“Does it really matter so long as you’re having fun?” – Sally Bowles

Glittering with Western optimism and vibrant theatrical colour, the modern movie musical is built on the grand spectacle of Hollywood’s golden age, with the likes of Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis inspiring the modern flamboyance of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! It is exactly this filmmaking formula that the influential film Cabaret from director Bob Fosse is trying to upend, creating a brand new composition of movie musical that would go on to forever change the makeup of the timeless genre.

A cautionary moral tale deeply concerned with politics and the healthy functioning of society over the frivolities of optimism that often fuel the standard musical, Cabaret is an eerie tale of impending doom set at the dawn of a terrifying new reality. Based in Berlin during the Weimar Republic that was becoming increasingly pressured by the prominence of the Nazi Party in 1931, Cabaret focuses on the flamboyant and confident Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), an American performer at the Kit Kat Club cabaret. 

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The everyday life of Bowles is split between strutting on the stage of the frenetic cabaret and spending time with her somewhat frigid English neighbour Brian (Michael York) who provides rigid stability for her chaotic lifestyle. Her dynamism is showcased in her frequent performances on stage, led by the Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey) a creepy, skeletal man in white makeup who runs the show with perfect theatrical timing and clockwork regimentation. 

Eccentric and ostentatious, Joel Grey’s sinister lead character becomes the spectre of this haunting film, leading the plot onwards as the narrator, becoming something of an omniscient figure as he overlooks the imminent arrival of the Nazi Party. Much like a court jester, the character is flamboyant and liberal whilst driving home truth under the guise of entertainment with many of his musical numbers reflecting the burgeoning hatred and contradictions of Nazi Germany. 

As a result, the film seems to reflect a moment of calm blissful ignorance in which the shape of a country was undeniably changing though no one was willing to accept such despair. At the heart of the story is a confident, sparky young American girl who dreams of industry success whilst she toys with the placid romance of Brian, a bisexual who seems quite happy to ponder his life with a plodding pace. Though they are indeed the leads, they are in many ways secondary to the furious subtext of the film, detailing the rise of fascism that bulges from the celluloid with venomous rage yet is veiled by the roar of the Kit Kat Club’s roar of laughter and applause.

Indeed, director Bob Fosse accesses the bleak soul of the source material of the 1966 Broadway musical of the same name by Kander and Ebb, elevating it to represent something entirely more haunting and sorrowful. What results is a gratifying journey into a fascinating pinpoint in history betwixt optimism and misery, hurrying audiences into the darkness of the Kit Kat cabaret and forcing them a cocktail all so that they will turn a blind eye to the depravity of what’s going on outside.

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